By Dr. Mark Bloomston, Surgical Oncologist, GenesisCare
On average, more than 60,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year. While the five-year relative survival rate is 11% (all SEER stages combined), treatment of pancreatic cancer has come a long way over the past decade.1
Because of modern treatment options, the holistic approach to cancer care employed by many physicians, and more patients embracing and focusing on their mental health throughout the treatment process, there are more positive outcomes today than ever before.
The evolution of pancreatic cancer treatment
While surgery remains the only potential curative therapy, gone are the days of rushing a patient to surgery immediately after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Today, there’s a growing trend among oncologists to administer chemotherapy or use new radiation technology before surgery.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s ideal for the patient to receive a minimum of half their chemotherapy treatments before surgery. However, due to its toxicity, this is not always possible.
The best-case scenario: A patient receives chemotherapy, tolerates it well, and is healthy enough to follow it with surgery. From there, their condition is reevaluated, and the next steps are outlined. Because surgery for pancreatic cancer can be incredibly complex, finding a treatment center with a physician experienced in treating pancreatic cancer specifically is critical. This may take a bit of research from the patient, but there are cancer care networks who can make this process much easier.
It’s important to note that chemotherapy drugs are improving by the day and have gotten so good they are frequently recommended before surgery. In five years, it’s even possible that all eligible patients would first receive chemotherapy and/or radiation before definitive surgery. Today, that’s only true for roughly half of all cancer patients in the United States.2
To this point, there’s new equipment capable of combining magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and radiotherapy technology. Called MRIdian, this device is the first MR-guided radiotherapy system with peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating reduced side effects and extended survival by decreasing treatment volumes and delivering additional targeted doses. Only available in select locations across the US and abroad today, MRIdian is revolutionizing personalized treatment for cancer already and will potentially offer a safe alternative for patients who are unable to undergo surgery.
No matter the treatment options selected, a holistic approach is necessary to ensure a patient’s underlying health factors and desired lifestyle are considered and valued by every physician helping along the way. Too often, physicians weigh the latest research too heavily and fail to recognize patient desires and needs as humans. This can be just as critical to creating a positive outcome.
Pancreatic cancer and mental health
There’s more to cancer than the physical toll it takes on your body. It’s also likely to affect your mental health, including your outlook on the future. For example, even after a patient receives a clean scan, it’s natural for them to “wait for the other shoe to drop.” They’re always wondering if the disease will return.
The best thing any cancer patient can do is live their life to the best of their ability. Don’t sit around and worry about the results of the next scan. Don’t count down the days until the next blood draw.
Always put your life first. If you’re feeling good, take advantage of it. You don’t necessarily need a scan to prove that there’s nothing wrong.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Some days are better than others, so it’s important to seek mental health help when necessary. Therapists, counselors, and support groups experienced in helping cancer patients manage their mental health and outlook on the future are popping up and growing across the nation.
A first-hand patient experience
While cancer patients put a lot of trust in their oncologists, it’s important that they also feel supported by others. Many doctors have room to improve their communication skills and bedside manner, as some can struggle to communicate emotions and empathize with patients while providing insights on how to maintain strong mental health—which is critical to the treatment process.
Community support can mean the world to a cancer patient going through treatment. Something as simple as a friendly voice on the other end of the phone can be a “pick me up” for patients who need to feel comforted. But don’t just take a physician’s word for it.
Not long ago, Anna Vasililou, a 15-year employee of GenesisCare, shared her personal journey with pancreatic cancer and offered her insights on how experiencing cancer completely altered the way she communicates with patients.
“Nowadays, I can lean on my experience when talking with patients. It makes a big difference when they know you’ve been through the same thing. It gives what you say more validity. Even when someone tries to sympathize with a cancer patient, you don’t know exactly what it’s like if you’ve never been there. That was something I valued during my treatment period, and is something I try to extend to others going through the same.”
Even during the toughest steps of the treatment process, Anna focused on preserving her mental health, which she believes helped her achieve a positive outcome during treatment for one of the most difficult forms of cancer.
“I tried to stay positive and look at cancer as not so much of a bad thing,” she noted. “I firmly believe you have to fight to remain positive throughout the treatment process and find people to help and support you along the way. As a front office worker, I am the first face a patient sees upon arrival and the last face they see when leaving. This puts me in a unique position to do my part in comforting them.”
Not everyone has an entire team around them to offer support during treatment, but everyone can make a more conscious effort to recognize and offer support when someone is going through cancer treatment. It’s such a vital part of preserving mental health, because it helps patients not feel so alone and continue doing the things they love, even if it’s as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee to catch up with an old friend. A healthier, happier patient puts up a stronger fight against one of the toughest forms of cancer.
Whenever possible, treatment centers should try to find team members who can offer a sense of understanding to patients, like Anna, while making sure the location has a few resources on hand to help patients find a support group or professional to listen.
Offering support like this for patients can help them better manage their mental health while enabling care providers to get closer to a truly holistic approach to cancer treatment.
There’s no way to sugarcoat a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. It’s a major life change that impacts a patient’s physical and mental health. The ability to remain positive can be critical to overcoming the disease.
If you’re concerned or have any questions about pancreatic cancer, consult your medical team on their recommended screening protocol. And if you’ve been diagnosed, don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion on your treatment strategy. You’re not alone, and there are teams of experts around the world who will work hard to achieve a positive outcome.
1 Key Statistics for Pancreatic Cancer. American Cancer Society. Accessed December 14, 2022. https://bit.ly/3WeNqgS
2 Quote from Dr. Bloomston – need source
The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.